Festival Dispatch #2: Sunsetting on Sundance 🌅
Wrapping up coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival
Quick heads up that this issue is extra long and will likely be truncated by your email client. For the best experience, read it in your browser!
Whew, we are through the week folks. Happy to be back in your inboxes so soon, and probably a little more than happy to lay off the films for a sec. We won’t bore you with the final tallies of everything we caught at Sundance (check our Letterboxds for those); suffice it to say: It was a lot. Here’s some of the best thoughts provoked from the back half of the festival for us (and it’s never too late to honestly subscribe, folks!).
What Zosha’s Been Watching
Am I OK?
directed by: directed by Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne / written by Lauren Pomerantz
From the opening moments Am I OK? seems to buzz with the energy (and soundtrack) of an L Word episode. Unfortunately, directors Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne’s coming out indie dramedy never quite coheres into a plotline as clear or juicy as that show. Am I OK? is at its deepest when it’s following the preternaturally close friendship of Lucy (Dakota Johnson) and Jane (Sonoya Mizuno), who know everything about each other. Or they did, until Jane announced she’s moving to London for work and Lucy finally tells Jane she’s gay. Somewhere around their big announcements, there’s a stronger movie, something more confident and clear about the very grounded emotions of the two women. When the script does let their bond cohere it feels remarkably true. But as the narrative starts to rely heavily on their motivations ringing true, Am I OK? coagulates into just alright.
Cha Cha Real Smooth
written and directed by: Cooper Raiff
Even in a time when indie-comedies-cum-coming-of-age stories are deviating from the well-trod path of yore, Cha Cha Real Smooth feels like a special kind of alchemy. Following a 22-year-old who’s moved home to his mom’s house after he graduated college without any real direction (and played by the writer-director behind the whole film, Cooper Raiff), Cha Cha feels very true. Raiff has a knack for capturing young people just trying their best, whether it’s Andrew or Domino (Dakota Johnson), the young mother whom he befriends as he tries as his hand at the bar/bat mitzvah hype-man circuit.
It is, likely, not a movie for everyone. His brand of sweetness isn’t trying to change the world so much as it is a reminder that we are all muddling through, sometimes so focused about where we are in life that we forget others are miles away. In that, Cha Cha manages to make that awareness not only remarkable but positively radiating with grounded vulnerability.
directed by: Carey Williams / screenplay by: KD Dávila
Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) don’t know what to do. They’ve come home to find a random white girl drunkenly passed out in their house, and they don’t want to call the cops because they might be seen as at fault. What follows is an intentional corruption of the usually raucous college party movie genre: as the two struggle to find a safe place to leave the mysterious girl, her sister Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter) is on the hunt for where she went.
Emergency dances between the danger of every outcome here, for everyone involved. Though the movie is funny at times, it’s not ignoring how there’s really no winner in this whole situation, and how Sean and Kunle in particular are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Their friendship grounds the movie, and carries the movie through its toughest moments. Ultimately, Emergency drives home just how backwards the entire system is that brought them here.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul
written and directed by: Adamma Ebo
There is a certain type of performance that is not only incredible to watch, but is wholly of the film that surrounds it. That is Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown in Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. Together they play pastor and first lady of a mega-church — or, a former mega-church, since the congregation has been shuttered since Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Brown) faced sexual misconduct allegations. Brown and Hall are spectacular, with Hall in particular anchoring the ever-shifting social mores of the film with just a quick tightening of her jaw. But most importantly their performances don’t feel like they’re in a league of their own. Rather they feel like they’re at one with the community of players around them.
In Adamma Ebo’s directorial debut, the couple invites a camera crew to follow their efforts to return the church (and themselves) to former glory, and not once does Honk for Jesus take the easy path when a more nuanced one is available. Weaving together faux mockumentary and scenes set away from the prying ears of the documentary, Ebo switches gears on a dime, instantly deepening the moments as she goes. With such expert hands at the wheel, what could’ve been a one-joke movie becomes one of the centerpieces of the whole festival for me, really.
Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy
directed by: Coodie & Chike
You may have heard that, unsurprisingly, Kanye West wants final cut of the three-part documentary series Jeen-yuhs. The man is a perfectionist, and a deeply personal one, particularly about his own story. And Jeen-yuhs fits into the constellation of Kanye as an intimate portrait, but, ultimately, not through his own voice. Directors Coodie & Chike had unprecedented access to West, having first started following him in Chicago in the late ’90s. The first part (an hour-and-a-half long and the only part I was able to screen at Sundance) is incredibly close, charting the rise of the man who would be rap king through some of the early struggles of his career. It’s all throwback to when Kanye was still trying to convince the world to let him rap, and bucket hats were dujour. Coodie and Chike imbue the chapter with the frenetic lo-fi energy of a VHS tape, giving everything — even the brief flashes of stardom — a sort of home movie quality.
You’ll certainly see some seeds of who Kanye West will be in this very focused portrait of the artist. But the best bits are (again, unsurprisingly) the ones you don’t have any idea about — him trying to get anyone at the Roc-a-fella records office to listen to his demo, or the obvious devotion of his mother Donda. When Coodie’s narration doesn’t smother the study, it’s the sort of thing that previously we were only able to imagine. One never knows what’s coming next with Kanye West, but Jeen-yuhs might be the closest we’ll come to understanding what got him here.
What Cate’s Been Watching
written and directed by: Lena Dunham
As a critic, one must work overlong to set aside personal biases and judge a piece of art on its own merits. It’s the very crux of the job. Lena Dunham in particular is an artist for whom this task is quite difficult given her very many and very public foibles, (including invaliding the disclosure of a sexual assault survivor). Usually, however, her work — with exacting emotional distance — can be regarded as further proof of her talent as a writer and filmmaker. That is not the case with her latest effort Sharp Stick — her first feature film since 2010’s Tiny Furniture. This new entry into her directorial canon is a lazy, borderline offensive screed that struggles towards coherence and never achieves it. Centered on a naive 26 year old (who may or not may not be autistic depending on whom you believe) exploring her sexuality after a radical hysterectomy at 17, the film is a sloppy attempt to explore some of the same issues Dunham has experienced in her own life. But while Dunham has written beautifully about her own struggles with ill-health, this film reduces her protagonist’s desire to discover her body and how it can bring her pleasure to a literal checklist written on construction paper with magic markers. Dunham tries to have her cake and eat it too, infantilizing her star while pushing her into the realm of the explicit. It is a baffling series of choices that unsurprisingly results in a terrible film.
My Old School
written and directed by: Jono McLeod
It’s hard to describe what an utterly bizarre and delightful film My Old School turns out to be. A documentary-cum-hybrid-animated feature film, director Jono McLeod takes us through the notorious scam of an old Scottish classmate, one Brandon Lee. Using interviews with others from his cohort, archival footage, and animated recreations, we learn about a mysterious classmate who dazzled the school with his advanced grasp of class material and a star turn in the yearly musical, only to later be found out as a 32-year-old grifter trying to secure a second shot at medical school by… erasing his life and starting again. The film is wonderfully deranged in tone and centers on a lip-synced performance of Brandon Lee’s audio interviews by Alan Cumming. Lee refused to appear on camera, and in another lifetime, Cumming was cast as Lee in a planned feature film. McLeod conducts the interviews in pairs, giving his old mates the opportunity to play off each other’s recollections of the bizarre events and chuckle at their own youthful gullibility. The narrative twists and turns of the story (there are at least 3 versions of events) are both absolutely key and besides the point. The real hook here is the collective memory of this unique class of schoolmates, and how the experience shaped their lives. It’s kooky, funny, and endlessly enjoyable.
written and directed by: Andrew Semans
The most terrifying thing about Resurrection is that it achieves its overwhelming sense of menace with little to no obvious threat. When a woman discovers that a threat from her past has reentered her life, she rapidly unravels as she attempts to drive him away and keep herself and her teenage daughter safe. Years after suffering unending psychological abuse at the hands of her much older boyfriend David (Tim Roth) Margaret (Rebecca Hall) is immediately returned to the hypervigilant and terrified state she inhabited before she was able to get away as a young woman. Rebecca Hall goes all in as the tormented Margaret, unraveling layer by layer as Roth twists the pins with nothing more than his words. Posing threats as kindnesses — as in, walk to work barefoot every day or assume a stress position if you want to keep your daughter safe — David drives Margaret to the breaking point with promises that their long dead son is still alive inside him. The entire thing builds to a truly disturbing climax that’s well worth the wait. But the journey itself is half the fun. A psychological thriller that earns the label, Resurrection is a chilling look at the dynamics of intimate partner abuse.
We Need To Talk About Cosby
directed by: W. Kamau Bell
This had to happen eventually, and there’s no one better than W. Kamau Bell to have done it. A four hour look at the length and breadth of Bill Cosby’s career, Bell excavates the timeline of Cosby’s alleged assaults, lining them up against spikes in his achievement, popularity and power. Through archival footage and interviews with commentators and intellectuals, he makes the case that Bill Cosby has never hidden his predeliction for sexual violence, instead folding it into his material as a way to soften the blow. Many of Cosby’s survivors appear on camera to recount their stories, going into harrowing detail about what happened to them and collectively illuminating Cosby’s clear and repeated pattern. For viewers who have long believed their stories, the documentary will act as a vindication. For those who still harbor doubts or defiance, Bell’s measured and strategic process may capture the fence sitters, even if the sycophants resist.
If you’re just finding this newsletter, do us a favour and subscribe. It feeds our fragile egos. And if you’re already a loyal reader, help us out and tell a friend. Thanks for taking this Sundance journey with us, and happy movie yelling!